Over the past two years, I have been traveling to Latin America, visiting countries such as Colombia and Ecuador where I have come to learn and experience sacred healing practices and traditions. During these trips, I had the opportunity to participate in traditional Master plant healing ceremonies and learn about these medicines and traditions directly from the elders. I have come to be familiar with sacred plants from the Amazon and the Andes such as yagé (ayahuasca), agucolla (San Pedro), hayo (coca), ambil (tobacco-derived substance), rapé and yopo. On my first trip to Ecuador, in May 2018, I experienced my first encounter with San Pedro cactus, my second trip to Ecuador, in May 2019, was to Malchinguí for the vision quest, and finally, I had the rare opportunity to participate in the inauguration of a maloka (ceremonial house) in Santa Elena, Colombia, in August of 2019. The following stories recount these lived experiences in Ecuador and Colombia with traditional sacred plant medicines and ceremonies in my exploration of ethnographic writing. They are accompanied by photographs to draw you into the experience.

The following texts are written from my perspective and my personal experiences in these events, however, there is no dialogue included in the stories. These explorative ethnographic accounts have mainly been written while thinking along with Anna Tsing (2015) on the art of noticing (first, second and third nature) and assemblages in the world of the Matsutake mushroom, as well as with Marisol De La Cadena (2015) in her exploration of life in-ayllu and earth-beings, but not only, in the Andean world.

Knowing Aguacolla in the Ecuadorian Andes

Our eyes meet from across the room, and we smile. You are passed the guitar and begin strumming. The walls are glowing from the fire at the center of the space, where we are but sitting shadowy figures with glimmering eyes and teeth. I close my eyes, listening to the song; I focus on the sounds of the rhythmic guitar as I beat out the tempo on my thighs and sing some words I recognize. This is my first time here, in this place and in a ceremony like this one. At that moment I found myself in the middle of the world, in the Ecuadorian Andes, at an elevation of 10450ft, on Mount Ilaló (Summit Post 2019). I felt perfectly at home, and although I didn’t completely understand the meaning of these songs, I knew that I was and that we are, here with a purpose. Looking back now, this ceremony was an assemblage of humans and plants, with the purpose of uniting as a family for the healing of humanity. This blending of human-plant spaces could be considered third-nature, as Anna Tsing coined the term in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015).

The music begins awakening the bitter concoction I had drunk what seemed to be hours ago. I focus on my breath, remembering my purpose and the prayer that was made with the first tobacco, the tobacco of purpose which was smoked to open the ceremony. This was what I now knew to be a two tobacco ceremony; it is unique to this Elder’s spiritual path and follows the design of the half-moon from the Lakota Peyote ceremony with chants from the Chachi people of Ecuador, as well as originals from the musically talented Elder. As I open my eyes, the sun is beginning to peek over the horizon, and in this coldest moment of the night, the indigo tones in the trees outside are flushed out by pale yellow light. I see Kiliku, the local llama and mascot, grazing by the window behind the Elder. The rays of the sun reach the skylight above our heads and soak into every cell of my body now vibrating with life. “This is what it must feel like to feed off sunlight, to be photosynthesizing,” I thought to myself at that moment. I now ask myself, was I becoming a plant? This was definitely the energy of the plant harmonizing, vibrating and awakening from the inside out.

I am suddenly grounded by the sound of children waking up, laughing and running around the room. I found it so beautiful that in this space, children were welcome and allowed to be present with the parents. This ceremony was nothing to be ashamed, as it might be considered in the West, but rather an open, honest and sacred healing space welcoming of all people. The music stops and for a moment I realize we made it through the night, singing, praying and fasting water. At that moment the Fireman, who had been taking care of the fire throughout the night, prepares the second sacred tobacco with which he will pray the water of life. That first sip of water refreshes every inch of my being, further deepening my experience with the elements.

After everyone had taken a sip of the water, the Elder takes the tobacco and moves to the center of the room, to the fire, where with a few words, he closes the energy channels between the earth and the sky, marking the end of my first San Pedro ceremony.

Vision Seeking amongst the Earth-Beings

El buscador looks over the horizon to the Cotopaxi, one of the three snowy peaks surrounding Malchinguí. I walk over to the Teocalli (ceremonial house), to the sacred fire, to roll a tabaquito and pray for the life of the buscadores and buscadoras. I had returned to Ecuador, and the Andes, this time in the company of my Colombian partner, and friends, who were “going to the mountain” in their third year of the vision quest. This vision quest was led by the same elder with which I first drank San Pedro, less than a year ago. This búsqueda de visión follows a syncretic design from the Lakota and the Mayan, a design that came to Aurelio Tekpankalli through a vision. Unlike in the traditional Lakota vision quest design (4 days/nights for four years), La búsqueda that was taking place in Malchinguí is done in 4, 7, 9 and 13 days/nights over four years. The first year represents humbleness, the second willingness, the third honesty and the fourth year, integrity.

La búsqueda de visión, as I understood it, was a pagamento and rezo to Mother Earth. The buscador lays his life on the sacred-mountain, praying for a vision, an instruction for his life. He prays for the healing of all his relations and opens himself to encounters with the entity of the mountain, the giant beings or earth-beings (De La Cadena 2015: 5). The mountains are sacred giant beings; it is said that the mountain will call the vision seeker when (s)he is ready to go to the mountain. Nazario, in Marisol De La Cadena’s book, understands the apus and tells her “that the apus would decide what [she] could or could not do.”(ibid.: 28) You could say then that I am only writing here what the mountain allows me to share my experience.

As Marisol De La Cadena mentions in her book Earth Beings, the runukana or in this case the seeker must first be “able to identify the request and earth-being makes or imposes to establish a relationship with it” (ibid.: 18). In the context of the visions quest, this would be done through the practice of pagamento, or pago, to the apus which the seeker makes through fasting of water, food, and word (ibid.: 30). She also mentions how this relationship between the runukana and the earth-beings is constantly cultivated and will accompany the practitioner even when they travel faraway (ibid.: 18). In the same way, the alliance with the earth-being or sacred-mountain, but not only, will accompany el buscador throughout his life. The baston which the seeker carries with him/her all four years to the mountain is a symbol, but not only, of that strength and alliance with the mountain, but not only.

Being on the mountain as a vision seeker or at the support camp “moves things”; energy can be felt moving throughout the space, the presence of the earth-beings is powerful. They call the seekers los valientes, for what they are doing is very brave. The vision quest is not a game; it is done with extreme care and in all seriousness because the life of the seekers is at stake. With the support of the sacred fire, which is kept burning for 14 days and nights, the seekers can feel its warmth and support, knowing that we are praying for them.

Not unlike in alliances humano-végétales (Laplante 2019), the seeker must tune in and open themselves to the serendipitous possibilities of forging alliances with the earth-beings as they vegetalize their senses through fasting and immobility, they find strength in becoming-with the mountain.

Traditional knowledge and ontological divergence

I spent my final days of summer in Colombia, in Santa Elena, on the outskirts of Medellín, at the inauguration of a maloka (ceremonial house, but not only). The day before the dance of fruits, we prepared the ceremonial food; chicha de chontaduro, caguana (yucca and pineapple based beverages) and casaba de yucca (cassava bread) which we would feast on throughout the night until daybreak. During these preparations, the elder shared a few words on the myths of creation and the procedures of consecrating the territory through the dances. With the use of mambe (pulverized coca leaves) and ambil (tobacco-derived substance), he explained that the maloka was the center of the cosmos and permission had to be asked to the spirits or earth-beings, for the inauguration of this new healing site. He described this ceremony as a dance to harmonize the territory and the relations with these earth-beings.

Now, thinking with De La Cadena in the second interlude of her book, I recognized that these moments of sharing of traditional knowledge traverse and exceed history and representations, as they maintain memories alive through words. Such events, or in-ayllu practices, invite ontological disagreements and conversations in modern politics, a perpetually homogenous space (De La Cadena 2011: 282). They awaken in the younger generations and us, this awareness of cosmovivir with the munayniuq, enablers of life, both human and other-than-human beings (ibid.:168, 246, 284). Marisol De La Cadena invites us to see differently and consider mountains, land, and rivers as not only such but as earth-beings — alive and in-ayllu relations with runakuna. It is through practices and relations such as these (the inauguration of the maloka, despachos, etc.) that runakuna establish the reality of earth-beings (ibid.:165). The runakuna live with the landscape as a nurturer or Pachamama, however, such runakuna-tirakuna ontologies are seen as excessive in the world of modern politics, unless they existed through cultural practices (ibid.: 275 – 277). 

Thinking with Marisol De La Cadena on the topics of colonized science, economics and politics regarding the environment, in a moment where rethinking the landscape becomes crucial, nation-states and their extractives practices see mountains, rivers and land as only such whereas runakuna forge relations with these landscapes, becoming with the land. The concepts De La Cadena presents on traditional knowledge and practices, or in-ayllu life can be applied and integrated into the discussion concerning reconciliations between Indigenous peoples and nation-states. De La Cadena proposes the concept of cosmopolitics or alter-politics, “Relations among the divergent world as a decolonial practice of politics with no other guarantee than the absence of ontological sameness” (ibid.: 279-281). Applying these concepts to present-day requests made by Indigenous peoples of Canada in regard to the Truth and Reconciliation Act, Indigenous peoples require the fundamental acceptance of ontological divergence in the process of reconciliation. In other words, in order to remedy the nature-human division as well as nation-state and Indigenous peoples relations, we must adapt to these ontological differences or as Isabelle Stengers describes in De La Cadena’s book, “The coming together of heterogenous practices that will become other than what they are while continuing to be the same” (ibid.: 280).


Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Behar, Ruth. 2003. Ethnography and the Book That Was Lost. Ethnography 4 (1): 15-39.

Benedict, Ruth 1934. Patterns of Culture, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, p.21-44 (Diversity of Culture)

Castañeda, Carlos 1968. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. California: University of California Press. p.1-21.

De La Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings. Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Laplante, Julie. 2019. Talk on humano-vegetale alliances, FSS, University of Ottawa, November 8, 2019.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. “Introduction: The Subject, Method, and Scope of this Inquiry”. in Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveband Press, Inc. 1-20.

Volcán Ilaló, Summit post, https://www.summitpost.org/volc-n-ilal/624798, October 2019

Image credit: Brokentaco via flickr

About The Author

Profile photo of Dariel Helmesi